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Benjamin Clementine in 2015
7 December 1988
Crystal Palace, London, England
|Home town||Edmonton, London, England|
Born and raised in London, England, Clementine later moved to Paris, France becoming homeless as a teenager. There, his performances helped him to become a cult figure in the music and art scene. Moving back to London, he made his TV debut on the BBC programme Later With Jools Holland in 2013. A number of critics described him as becoming one of the great singer-songwriters of his generation and the future sound of London, whilst struggling to place his music in any one genre.
Considered by The New York Times as one of the 28 geniuses who defined culture in 2016, Clementine's compositions are musically incisive and attuned to the issues of life but also poetic, mixing revolt with love and melancholy, sophisticated lyricism with slang and shouts, and rhyming verse with prose monologues. He moved to popular art music, breaking free from traditional song structure, inventing his own dramatic and innovative musical territory. He is noticeably seen topless and barefoot onstage, dressed entirely in black or dark grey, with a long, wool trench coat.
Clementine debut album At Least for Now won the 2015 Mercury Prize but fared better across mainland Europe. At the end of 2015, Clementine was included in The Guardian's New Year's honours list to celebrate heroes of 2015. Debrett's and the London Evening Standard named him one of the most influential people in Britain.
- 1 Early life
- 2 Early recordings
- 3 Studio albums
- 4 Artistry
- 5 Performance and appearances
- 6 Discography
- 7 Television appearances
- 8 References
- 9 External links
Clementine was born in Crystal Palace, London, the youngest of five children. He grew up in a middle-class family in Edmonton, London with his strict Roman Catholic grandmother. After she died, he moved in with his parents. Having suffered bullying at school, Clementine was mischievous as a child, but his rebellion was rarely conventional. He found himself particularly drawn to the literature of the Bible as well as poetry, especially the works of William Blake, TS Eliot, and Carol Ann Duffy. He would skip school but spend all day at the library, picking these books at random off the shelves. His older brother Joseph was fond of music philosophy, science, and English literature, and would point out different types of books and dictionaries for him to read.
Clementine sought out rarely used and archaic words, attempting to incorporate them into his vocabulary. Joseph bought a piano when Clementine was 11, and when he had finished his daily practice Benjamin would play it. Eventually his brother's acquired taste for the piano diminished and he moved on to another instrument giving Clementine more time to continue playing. He had discovered such a strong propensity to music that his father, who always intended for him to study law, had reason to be alarmed. He strictly forbade him to meddle with any musical instrument but Clementine found means to get a little keyboard privately conveyed to a room at the top of the house where he played when his parents went to work. Clementine could not read music, but in a few months he started imitating the work of fin-de-siècle composer Erik Satie and Claude Debussy, learned from listening to Classic FM after "becoming bored" with pop music, and continued to play discreetly for the next five years until his parents' divorce.
Relocation to Paris
Clementine left school at 16 after failing most of his GCSEs, passing only English literature, following which he had a dispute with his family and ended up in Camden Town, London, homeless and in psychological and financial difficulties. Although it was not a premeditated plan, he relocated to Paris at age 19, where he spent a number of years busking and playing in bars and hotels in Place de Clichy while sleeping on the streets. Occasionally, he applied for jobs cleaning kitchens but was never successful. He eventually moved to a hostel in Montmartre, where he paid €20 to live in a ten-man bunk-bed room. He preferred to sleep in the lower beds to enable him to hide his belongings underneath. Clementine eventually bought a half-broken guitar and a cheap keyboard. For the next three years he wrote and composed songs. Inspired by the poets and singers he'd come to admire in France, he decided his songs would be pointless if they didn't say something about his particular experiences. Clementine managed to stay out of trouble as he spent his nights performing and his days composing and writing, becoming a cult figure in the Parisian music scene. After four years of living as a vagabond, he was discovered by an agent whilst walking back home from an evening performance and they arranged a meeting for the next day. The agent introduced him to a friend, Matthieu Gazier, later on becoming Clementine's manager for a period of time. In 2012, whilst playing a gig at the Festival de Cannes they met Lionel Bensemoun, a business mogul in France. Through him, they decided to set up the record label 'Behind' so that Clementine could record his music. He eventually came to the attention of the French press, who described him as "la révélation anglaise des Francos" ("the English revelation of the "Francofolies" festival"). He was then invited to the Rencontres Trans Musicales of Rennes in France in December 2012 where he performed for the first time on a large stage and played four nights consecutively. Clementine eventually signed a joint music license contract between Capitol, Virgin EMI and Barclay.
Before Clementine signed a major deal he closely met and worked with a French tour agent with his independent label in Paris and embarked on a brief European tour playing in high-profile festivals as the Montreux Jazz Festival, the Montreal Jazz Festival in Canada; and Eurosonic Festival, of which Rob Van Der Zwaan writing for podium.info described him as one of the highlights. As a result, the North Sea Jazz Festival in 2013 booked Clementine to play. He failed to attend. According to Clementine, he was kicked off the train en route to Rotterdam for being unable to show a valid ticket. He didn't have enough money due to not getting paid by his then-tour agent. Clementine later stated that he had attempted to travel by foot to Rotterdam, after assuming the city was close by. However, the journey was in fact 45 km, which was considerably longer than he had estimated. He had tried to stop passers by while walking along the motorway, but nobody would stop and help. It took him about 10 hours to complete the journey and he arrived at his destination with bleeding toes. When he set off walking he was wearing slippers, but at some point decided to carry on walking barefoot. Despite this, two years later he was offered another spot at the same festival. In 2014, during the shooting of his music video for "At Least for Now", Clementine fell on a pile of stones in Ireland, badly injuring his elbow, then later cut a toe whilst walking on stones. In March 2015, whilst performing in the middle of a concert in Paris, he cut a finger open and started to bleed, but kept on playing until an audience member threw tissues on the stage. He later cynically remarked: that's what happens when you fall in love; you get hurt.
Cornerstone EP, Glorious You EP
Clementine's first EP, Cornerstone, was released in June 2013 with three studio tracks. It was re-issued in October 2013 with three additional acoustic tracks recorded for Deezer, a web-based music streaming service. In the same month, on an episode of the BBC television show Later With Jools Holland that also included performances by Paul McCartney, Earth, Wind and Fire, Gary Clark Jr. and the Arctic Monkeys, he performed the EP’s title track. The appearance drew strong critical praise, with Paul McCartney encouraging Clementine to continue his musical career. The London Evening Standard's David Smyth, reviewing a gig at the South Bank Centre, said that Clementine's performance reminded him of Nina Simone, particularly as he had covered her hit "Ain't Got No, I Got Life" in a radically different style. Clementine announced further tours, both solo and supporting Cat Power at the Brighton Dome, including an appearance at the O2 Academy in Brixton and at the Rencontres Trans Musicales festival in Rennes, France, where he worked on a special show and performed four nights. Andy Gill on the Independent album review wrote:
This debut EP offers a taste of one of 2014's most promising new talents. With just Benjamin Clementine’s impulsive piano figures accompanying his dark, powerful voice, there's a soulful solemnity about these searching songs. But there’s also a wealth of imagination at work: "It's a wonderful life, traversed in tears from the heavens," he observes in "I Won't Complain", surveying the emotional turmoil that renders his heart a "melodrama in fact"; while over flurries of piano, his urgent delivery of "Cornerstone" blends the sensitivity of Antony Hegarty with the wracked passion of Nina Simone, admitting loneliness as his "home, home, home", but biting off the word to sound like "hope". A distinctive and impressive new voice.
At Least for Now
Clementine initially wanted to record his debut album, At Least for Now, straight after his first EP, Cornerstone, but due to contractual dealings with the music industry and his label it was strategically held back for almost two years. During that time he decided to write his own dictionary, as well as a collection of poetry and classical music pieces. At Least for Now was mainly released across Europe on January 12, 2015. On the 13 February 2015 it reached the iTunes Top 10 in Italy, Holland, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg Poland and Greece. In England, it won the prestigious Mercury Music Prize.
At Least for Now largely received critical acclaim. The album holds a 75 out of 100 rating based on 19 critical reviews indicating "generally positive reviews" from Metacritic. Clementine's win of the Mercury Prize came as a complete surprise by many and was perfectly written by Geoffery Himes in the Washington Post by saying that It was impressive enough that Benjamin Clementine won 2015’s Mercury Prize, It’s even more impressive that “At Least for Now” is unlike anything else in pop music at the moment. The best shorthand description is perhaps “Nina Simone singing the Leonard Cohen songbook,” for Clementine’s unapologetically literary lyrics are delivered in a strong but idiosyncratic tenor. David Simpson from The Guardian gave the album 3 stars out of 5, describing the debut as "fascinating but flawed", explaining that it "benefits from the bravery and adventurousness Clementine honed while tackling audiences aboard Parisian trains." Regarding Clementine's vocals, Simpson said: "Channelling influences such as Erik Satie and Antony Hegarty, Clementine is reminiscent of Kevin Rowland in that he sounds as if he is singing from the gut, and because he has to. If only he had Rowlands’ economy: mannered vocal flourishes complicate the melodies when what’s needed is simplicity. The addition of syrupy strings and pedestrian drumming further dilutes the impact of his raw talent. However, when he performs unadorned, melodies dripping from his fingertips, and letting fly from the heart, his voice is difficult to forget." Phil Mongredien, also reviewing for The Guardian, gave the album 4 stars out of 5, writing that "for the most part these piano-led songs sound unique, the lonely despair of Cornerstone and the arresting lyricism of Condolence signalling an exciting new talent."
I Tell a Fly
Accompanied by a video shot by photographer Craig McDean and filmmaker Masha Vasyukova published earlier than its official release on 30 June 2017, Clementine composed Phantom Of Aleppoville after being affected by the writing of pioneering British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. He wrote extensively about children who have experienced bullying in the home and at school, discovering that while the trauma was naturally not comparable in scale to that suffered by children displaced by war, its effects followed similar patterns. Seeing in Winicott’s writing a mirror of his own childhood experiences, Clementine chose the title – the “little city of Aleppo” – to symbolise a place where children encounter such bullying. Says Clementine, “Aleppoville is a place where many are bullied if not all, but no one understands nor see why; Phantom.” I Tell a Fly finds Clementine exploring new musical territory on the heels of his Mercury Prize-winning debut, At Least for Now (2015). At Least for Now stretched itself across a series of piano ballads with unorthodox structures; I Tell a Fly brings a sense of theatricality and power by using whirling, interwoven instruments throughout the uncompromising release. While At Least for Now looked inward and backward, Clementine's follow-up looks outward and forward-to a changing world, ancient struggles and the individual response. In conversation with David Renshaw, Clementine explains that the origin of I Tell a Fly lies in a disarmingly strange line Clementine found in his American visa: "an alien of extraordinary abilities." He explains, "I was baffled for about ten minutes when I first saw that visa. But then I thought to myself, I am an alien. I'm a wanderer. In most places I've been, I've always been different. And so I began to think about the story of a couple of birds, who are in love: one is afraid to go further, and the other is taking a risk, to see what happens." On I Tell a Fly, Clementine uses his personal history as a prism through which to view the world around him (and attempt to make sense of both), musically exploring unknown territories while maintaining a lifeblood that could not be mistaken for the work of anyone other than him.
Clementine is a spinto tenor. His voice has been described as warm and graceful, with a bright, full timbre, that ranges from approximately the C one octave below middle C (C3) to the D one octave above middle C (D5). Writing for The Quietus, Calum Bradbury-Sparvell described Clementine's voice as having the "expressive but exact enunciation of a stage actor, which allows his lyrics to spill and scatter out of sync with his hands in a way which warrants the endless Nina Simone comparisons." He went on to write: "Yet as an atypical singer-songwriter with a strong sense of grandeur, an impressively broad tenor range and more than a dash of dark humour, he also resembles Rufus Wainwright". Interviewing Clementine for The New York Times, David Byrne said,
It seemed to me that Clementine’s autodidacticism was his way of asking how one should be in a world that doesn’t make sense — the type of inquisitive probing we get in his soulful songs, which draw on the work of French performers such as Léo Ferré, Édith Piaf and Henri Salvador. His stirring, impassioned tenor sounds like it’s from another world, but it’s the singer’s questioning of the one we live in that sets his music apart.
Clementine is a multi instrumentalist and cites a broad range of musical influences: Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, Leonard Cohen, Leo Ferré, Nina Simone, Jake Thackray, Jimi Hendrix, Serge Gainsbourg, Aretha Franklin, Lucio Dalla, Giacomo Puccini, Luciano Pavarotti, Maria Callas, Georges Brassens and Frédéric Chopin. In a 2015 interview he listed Simone, Nick Cave and Tom Waits as his heroes. Clementine had little exposure to music whilst growing up and is self-taught. In his teens he had caught avant-garde French composers like Erik Satie and Claude Debussy. These influences inspired him to create his own material. He accompanies on hypnotic piano vamps with mostly minimal instruments ranging from little voice breaths, a brushing of coat for percussion as in his song "Edmonton", to a vicious string stride confrontation in his song "Adios".
I am an expressionist; I sing what I say, I say what I feel and i feel what I play by honesty and none other but honesty. Some will get bored of me, but I invite the patient listener to come forth, feel and most importantly engage with me without asking too many questions. Hopefully by the end of listening they shall get answers not questionable, whether pleasing or not.
Clementine states he has mainly been influenced by confessional poets like Sylvia Plath as well as writers such as William Blake, Carol Ann Duffy, James Baldwin, the philosopher John Locke and C. S. Lewis. In an interview with the broadsheet newspaper The Times with Ed Potton, Clementine expressed his feelings of hating the works of William Shakespeare as a child as it was all his teachers always taught him so he preferably went to his local library to read the other William, William Blake. Whilst in Paris, he discovered French poets such as Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud including poet-singers such as Leo Ferré, Georges Brassens, Jacques Brel and Charles Aznavour with whom he sang and recorded the song 'You've got to learn'. It is Paris where Clementine discovered Nina Simone. He delivers his introspective lyrics about integrity and vulnerability and explores both in everyday experience. One of his frustrations after returning to the UK was how little ambition he thinks there is in British song lyrics compared to his experience of French music. Talking to the Guardian journalist Tim Lewis, he said, "it's very important down there (France) because most of the time they [the audience] pay more attention to what the singer says and what they are trying to express."
On his song Winston Churchill's boy, he rewrites and repurposes the words of Winston Churchill, lamenting "never in the field of human affection had so much been given for so few attention". Writing for The Quietus, Calum Bradbury-Sparvell described the song in the context of Clementine's debut album as "a melodramatic beginning which harks back to the alienation he felt from family and friends on the eve of his emigration to the City Of Light," going on to write: "For a Gallic darling, Clementine certainly gazes wistfully across La Manche a lot and one senses that, despite the obvious French influences, there is more of the spurned Londoner in him than the flâneur.
Mostly playing on stage entirely in black or dark long trench-like woollen coats with no shirt underneath, in barefoot, Clementine's distinctive androgynous appearance, square-cut, angular padded clothing, manner, and height of 193 cm (6'4) is uniquely known at least as much as he is for his art. In March 2015 Clementine was listed as one of the fifty best-dressed by the Financial Times. Clementine collaborated multiple times with Christopher Bailey. On 17 June 2014 Clementine performed three songs live throughout the Burberry Prorsum Menswear Catwalk show - the first musician to perform live throughout a Burberry show. He performed again on the Burberry menswear show in January 2016. In April 2016, his song "I Won't Complain" was chosen for the Mr. Burberry ad, directed by Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen.
Performance and appearances
Clementine's live performances have received praise.David Byrne interviewing Clementine for The New York Times Magazine accounted on his performances saying that he was introduced to Clementine’s music through a friend who insisted he check him out. He was floored, and immediately asked him to perform at a music festival that he curated in London. He took the stage in a long coat, no shirt or shoes on, and played the piano perched on a high stool, almost standing. He said that It was as if Clementine were singing directly to each person in that room, a far cry from rush hour in a station of the Métro. Mollie Goodfellow of The Independent upon reviewing him at the Meltdown festival curated by David Byrne in the Queen Elizabeth Hall August (2015), stated;
Despite repeat comparisons to Nina Simone from critics, it’s hard to pin London-born, Paris-dwelling Benjamin Clementine down. His voice certainly has the richness of Simone, but his style of performing and theatrical flair is entirely his own. His song Adios, from album At Least For Now, for example, would not be out of place on Broadway. He carries himself well, walking on stage confidently and barefoot, and carries his music even better – each song sung so strikingly that you can’t help but get caught up in the emotion of the thing. I’ll admit I found myself affected by his rendition of his popular single Cornerstone, a song reminiscent of the Cinematic Orchestra. Really, he needs no more than himself and a piano, but Clementine’s drummer Alexi joins him on stage for several of his songs at the Meltdown Festival set. The drumming complimented the flatness of the piano perfectly. Every word, every key of his set was performed with an incredible certainty and purpose and the moments of silence found between verses were fraught with a heavy tension, like the audience were waiting for a sudden outburst of emotion – which is something the performance was not exactly lacking in the first place.
However, John Lawrence from The Daily Telegraph despite giving Clementine a four star review at his gig at the Barbican also remarked that during the evening, Clementine attempted two covers and it was here that his charismatic singularity dwindled. An over-worked Voodoo Chile and a pretty but unremarkable version of Nick Drake's Riverman confirmed that Clementine is at his best when he is mining the depths of his own strange world. Despite vocal swoops and bursts of grand guignol piano playing, Clementine’s own songs always felt intimate and confessional. Using someone else’s words was deadening somehow. However, anyone attending last night’s concert would have realised that Clementine has talent to burn. He is only 26 and yet, already, he has mastered a key theme that is essential to so many great artists – that of life’s essential sadness.
On Sunday 12 October 2014, Clementine performed and spoke at the Observer Ideas at the Barbican Centre, a festival to share ideas to the public, in a line up that included Edward Snowden, David Simon, creator of the acclaimed HBO series The Wire and multi-award-winning musician Tinie Tempah
|At Least for Now||
|I Tell a Fly||
|EP||EP details||Peak positions|
|Glorious You EP||
|Year||Song||Peak positions||Album / EP|
|"I Won't Complain"||118|
|2015||"Condolence"||193||At Least for Now|
|2017||"Phantom of Aleppoville"||—||I Tell a Fly|
|"God Save the Jungle"||—|
As featured artist
(Gorillaz featuring Benjamin Clementine)
|2013||Later... with Jools Holland||"Cornerstone" & "Nemesis"||Series 43, Episode 6|
|2016||The Late Late Show with James Corden||"I Wont Complain"||Season 2 Episode 115 |
|2016||The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon||"Cornerstone"||The Tonight Show |
|2017||Later... with Jools Holland||"God Save The Jungle" & "By The Ports Of Europe" (also "Jupiter")||Series 51, Episode 1 (also Series 51 (live), Episode 1)|
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